The Vegans of Okinawa
Veganism gains ground on the island in Japan where Spam has reigned supreme since U.S. occupation
Metal trays clatter, breaking the Saturday afternoon lull. Inside a small concrete building in suburban Okinawa, two kittens snooze in a scratched-up armchair. Meows can be heard from the kitchen, where several cats are picked up and herded out in preparation for dinner. I’m at Gub Gub’s Vegan Kitchen — just don’t call it a restaurant, lest you provoke the owner.
“It’s a small gritty place that serves food, a canteen,” explains Tetsuro Nishi, flashing a smile that sends ripples across his tanned forehead, a bun of long, glossy hair nodding in agreement. Nishi has run Gub Gub’s on this subtropical Japanese island for the past four years. He favors grit over polish, intimacy over formality. That ethos pervades at Gub Gub’s, a place where “you don’t have to be dressed up, because you’ll be covered in cat hair anyway.”
Named for a talking pig from the menagerie in Dr. Dolittle’s book series, Gub Gub’s is located on a narrow sideroad in a residential neighborhood and housed in one of Okinawa’s typical typhoon-proof concrete structures, once home to a convenience store. It sells unfussy and deeply satisfying vegan burgers. The “Dolittle Cheeseburger Combo” is a warm amalgam of melty vegan cheese and chewy vegan meat inside a crisp bun. Its price includes a “little donation to animal rescue groups in Okinawa.” Inside Gub Gub’s walls, Nishi seeks to convert the uninitiated, create a haven for vegan and vegetarian customers, and provide a home for a rotating cast of motley strays (their ranks have included 11 cats, two dogs, two birds, a turtle, and a rat — all vegan). Gub Gub’s is an embodiment of Nishi’s values.
“I smoke and I drink lots of booze,” he says, laughing, “I just disagree that you need to kill to survive.”
It’s a tough mantra to swallow in a place where locals are said to consume “every part of the pig except its squeal.” Okinawa may seem like an unlikely stage for a vegan renaissance. Its traditional dishes include Okinawa soba, noodles in a heavy, pork-based broth with thick slabs of pork belly, and goya chanpuru, stir-fried bitter melon with tofu, egg, and spam. The island’s most popular dish is arguably the American-influenced, beefy “takoraisu,” or taco rice: ground beef, lettuce, and tomatoes on a bed of white rice — minus the taco shell. Many native Okinawans are still unfamiliar with veganism.
Yet it is on Okinawa that Nishi hopes to establish an epicenter of conscientious eating. Already, there are indications the food culture here is changing. The island of roughly 1.4 million people boasts upward of 50 vegan or vegetarian restaurants, according to Happy Cow, an online directory of vegan-friendly dining spots. In 2018, it hosted its first vegan night market, an event that has grown into a bimonthly street fair with a dozen food vendors, drawing crowds of locals and foreign tourists alike.
“They were the kind of places where rich housewives are the target audience, where they give you two slices of potato with five grains of sesame on top, a spoonful of rice, and some fried object.”
To explain the boom, some members of Okinawa’s vegan community point to March of 2011. A 15-meter tsunami devastated mainland Japan, causing more than 15,000 deaths and a meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. In the following months, Okinawa saw its highest migration rate in years, with thousands moving to the island from other Japanese prefectures. A native of Tokyo with no prior restaurant training and then a co-owner of a data analytics business, Nishi was among them. His early experiences of vegan restaurants on Okinawa led him to think he could do better.
“They were the kind of places where rich housewives are the target audience,” he says, “where they give you two slices of potato with five grains of sesame on top, a spoonful of rice, and some fried object.” Nishi wanted to start up his own business, a low-key eatery where you could kick up your heels and leave with a full stomach. In many ways, Okinawa seemed like the perfect spot to set up shop. A blend of cultures and cuisines shaped by frequent occupations and incursions, the island had already proven receptive to new ways of eating.
More than two and a half hours from Tokyo by plane, Okinawa is just a brief hour-and-a-half flight from Taipei; its culture reflects this proximity. The island once belonged to the independent Ryukyu Kingdom, influenced by nearby Taiwan and China. After being forcibly annexed by the Japanese military, Okinawa was made a prefecture of Japan in 1879, resulting in the suppression of Ryukyan customs — including the local dialects, all six of which are on UNESCO’s list of languages under threat of extinction. In 1945, Okinawa came under U.S. control; that occupation would last 27 years.
Today, it hosts 32 U.S. military facilities. Upwards of 47,000 Americans, including service members, civilians, and their dependents, live on the island, according to the Okinawan Prefectural Government. That American presence emerges in many Okinawan foods. Taco rice, for example, “really represents the different cultures somehow forced to live in the same place” in the post-war era, anthropologist Hideki Yoshikawa told CNN last year. The canned pork product Spam was introduced after World War II by the American army and remains popular.
With such offerings, it can be easy to forget that meat-centric eating is relatively new in Japan. As late as 1939, the typical Japanese diet had included just 0.1 ounce of meat per day, writes author Marta Zaraska in the book Meathooked. Today, that number has risen to 4.7 ounces. Zaraska posits that Western meat-eating culture and its post-war associations of strength and modernity may be one driver behind this change.
On mainland Japan, a vegetable-based diet dates back to feudal times, when meat was a luxury to most people. “Shojin ryori,” a vegan cuisine still available in temples and certain restaurants today, came to the country from China and was popularized with the spread of Zen Buddhism in the 13th century. Such a diet was not only convenient and in keeping with Zen philosophy; at times, it was enforced by law. Emperor Tenmu announced the country’s first meat ban in 675 CE, stipulating that there be “no beef, monkey, chicken, or dog in Japanese pots from late spring until early autumn,” according to Meathooked. With a premium on arable cropland, other similar bans followed.
Okinawa’s vegan movement appears to be independent of mainland Japanese influence. The island’s original vegan destination might be Kintsubo Shokudo. A small, Taiwanese-style buffet in Okinawa’s main city, Naha, it opened in 1991. One online reviewer wrote, “The owner didn’t know the word ‘vegan,’ but after [we explained] that we are vegetarians that don’t eat egg and dairy products, he confirmed that ALL of the dishes offered at the buffet were suitable for vegans.”
Mark Esparza, an Okinawan-born, second-generation restaurateur, is among the current cadre of vegan chefs. He has been running restaurants for 17 years and has been a vegan for the last three. Esparza’s path to veganism came through religion. A few years ago, when his son began attending a Seventh-day Adventist school with a vegan cafeteria, Esparza followed suit.
“It used to be that families took care of animals and raised them. It was not just a make-and-kill culture.”
“I finally came around to reading up on what veganism was all about,” he told me. The movement’s message to treat all sentient lifeforms with love resonated with him. Since then, Esparza has sold four of his businesses, closing his highest-grossing store, with the intention of shifting its focus to vegan dining. Rebranded as Esparza’s Tacos & Coffee, it should be entirely meat- and dairy-free within five years, he says.
Many of Okinawa’s vegan proponents cite a desire to better understand the sources of their food. “It used to be that families took care of animals and raised them,” says Hanako Tomita, a vegan organizer on the island. “It was not just a make-and-kill culture.” They face numerous hurdles, as food sourcing proves a unique challenge on Okinawa. A pint-sized container of strawberries (an ingredient in Gub Gub’s pancakes) fetches the equivalent of eight dollars; prices climb for rarer vegan specialty ingredients such as nutritional yeast or tahini, which must be sourced from mainland or imported. Aside from a few exceptions grown or made on the island, like local varieties of potato or Okinawan tofu, ingredients tend to cost more here — a stumbling block for many businesses.
“Lots of vegan cafés close in a year or two,” says Nayuta Hirano, an Okinawan-based singer and songwriter and longtime vegan. Hirano remembers the days when eating at home was her best option. Now, there are numerous places she can eat out. She sits on the board of the Vegan Food Fest alongside Nishi and shares his dream of making vegan food even more widely accepted and accessible on the island.
Despite his burgers’ growing popularity, Nishi has stayed true to his habits. He closes his kitchen early when he runs out of food (not uncommon), mocks his customers (“our hours are written on the door where any idiot can read them”), and sometimes turns away those who arrive before he is ready to serve them.
He has many goals, from starting up a vegan co-op to adding a vegan section to the local library. He says he’d love to be driven out of a job. Shuttering his kitchen for good would be the greatest measure of success — a sign that vegan businesses abound, and that others are ready to take up his mantle.
“I want to close this restaurant ASAP,” he laughs. “If I don’t have to do this, that’s the best thing.”